How Airports are Making the Broader Case for Indoor 5G

June 10, 2024
Kevin Swank, NICS Product Marketing Director, CommScope
Kevin Swank, NICS Product Marketing Director, CommScope

Along with their luggage, today’s connected travelers bring something else with them to the airport—something they don’t even consciously realize they have. That extra something is a conditioned expectation of 5G-level connectivity everywhere they go. While outdoor 5G is pervasive across many urban markets, driven by the macro cellular networks we all use, indoor coverage remains an uncertain proposition in many places—and when that ease of access is lacking, travelers notice. 

Outdoor 5G has a fundamental issue. Even more than older cellular technologies, the macro 5G network has a hard time penetrating indoor spaces, particularly those built of glass and steel, like airports. That’s why aviation has been a true leader in terms of industries deploying dedicated indoor 5G networks to ensure seamless coverage for travelers, staff and security—no matter which side of the threshold they’re on.

Unlike other early-adopting indoor 5G spaces, such as large public venues and stadiums, airports have a unique use case that must adapt to the complexity, variability and accountability that an airport network must accommodate. Far beyond a typical stadium network’s need for vast capacity and speed, an airport’s network must also serve highly variable connectivity levels, mixed indoor and outdoor spaces and secure communications among both personnel and connected devices.

In fact, the degree to which 5G has become central to large airports’ operations—and the sheer variety of ways that travelers, personnel and connected devices all use it to operate efficiently—makes for an excellent laboratory of broader indoor 5G use cases in smaller airports and enterprises in general.

Destination 5G: Layovers, Delays and Finally, Arrival

Even in airports, the route to full indoor 5G networks has seen its share of reroutes. The first 5G deployments had to—and in many places, still have to—share infrastructure with existing 4G/LTE technologies. This co-siting, though required to accommodate users still behind the 5G adoption curve, limited how 5G’s full potential could be realized on a practical level by limiting available spectrum.

In 2024, however, the market’s adoption of 5G mobile devices is nearing completion and these compromises are becoming moot. A full 5G network’s capacity and speed is exponentially greater than 4G/LTE’s; simply put, 5G does everything the older network technology can do—and do it much better. And it’s a good thing, too—after half a decade getting used to seeing the 5G logo on their devices’ status bars and taking 5G performance for granted in the outdoor macro environment, subscribers—and by that, I mean travelers—now see that 4G/LTE indication as an unwelcome compromise that they are increasingly unhappy to accept. Considering the sheer number of ways these travelers depend on connectivity in their journeys, it’s hardly surprising.

A Day in the Life of the Connected Traveler

Let’s follow a typical traveler—one of millions—through the steps of an ordinary flight to an unfamiliar destination city. Along the way, we’ll detail the many connected interactions that traveler depends on to reach his destination safely and comfortably.

First, our traveler—let’s call him Jim—has a lot on his mind today. Perhaps he’s traveling for an important job interview, visiting family for the first time in years or scouting a new city to live in. Whatever the reason, he’s focused on his destination more than his journey, making a smooth transit even more imperative.

·        Jim arrives at the airport and crosses the terminal’s threshold. At this moment, the outdoor 5G signal he’s used to navigate the best route to the airport practically vanishes behind a wall of thick glass and sturdy steel beams. His device automatically picks up the indoor 5G network blanketing the indoor spaces of the terminal. Connectivity persists seamlessly.

·        Next, he uses a kiosk to check in for his flight. His phone’s app receives his electronic ticketing information and boarding pass, directing him to the correct gate and even offering to provide real-time direction to reach it. Jim provides his electronic ticketing to airport security’s new self-service checkpoint and breezes through. Security’s own technology scans and clears his credentials over the same 5G network.

·        On the way to the gate, Jim uses his 5G phone to check the weather forecast in his destination city. 76 degrees and sunny—looks like he won’t have to worry about weather-related delays, and he made the right call leaving his jacket in his checked bag. He consults the airline’s app just to ensure no flight delays or gate changes have been posted. Nope, everything is on time and looking good.

·        As a seasoned traveler, Jim has arrived two hours before his flight. Taking a moment to relax before boarding, he visits a restaurant nearby for a quick meal. With his 5G signal still as strong as ever, Jim scans the QR code to bring up the menu online, he orders and enjoys his meal.

·        Checking his work email, he finds an urgent request to edit a legal document. With 5G’s inherent end-to-end encrypted security, however, he’s able to make the change and upload the new draft without exposing sensitive information to potential bad actors using spoofed Wi-Fi networks.

·        With lunch enjoyed and work settled, Jim has another 30 minutes before boarding. He relaxes and enjoys the season finale of his favorite streamed program without any stuttering or buffering. 5G was built for high-bandwidth applications like this.

·        Jim’s electronic boarding pass pops up when needed, he boards, and enjoys a nap all the way to his destination. Once on the ground, the destination airport’s 5G network—which covers the tarmac area—lets him identify his baggage claim area, confirm his hotel reservation and book his ride-share transportation before the aircraft even reaches the gate.

Over the course of this journey, Jim has used indoor 5G networks dozens of times to make his trip more efficient, easy and comfortable. And as a seasoned 5G user, all he notices is that things worked exactly like they should.

Airport Operations Also Benefit from 5G Connectivity 

Jim’s experience highlights many of the traveler-facing services and applications enabled by indoor 5G, but for the airport itself, these are only the beginning of the story. In addition to connected ticketing kiosks and self-service security checkpoints, airport operations can take advantage of 5G’s capabilities in countless other ways, indoors and out.

·        Security two-way radio communications

·        Tarmac communications for ground support crews

·        IoT devices controlling area access, environmental controls and information monitors

·        Parking ramp and automated rental car lot access points

·        Private 5G networks for use by airport or airline management

·        Vast indoor spaces like service hangars

With 5G expected to remain the core technology for wireless networks until 2030, an investment in indoor, mixed indoor/outdoor and private 5G networks made today has a long runway in which to realize more efficient operations and flexible adoption of emerging connected services and applications, including the ever-growing universe of IoT technologies.

As indoor 5G becomes more and more a part of our connected lives, it’s gone from being a “best practice” to being an “only practice” for airports—not only the largest international airports, but increasingly in smaller, regional airports as well, driven by the twin value propositions of improved traveler experiences and more nimble, efficient airport operations.

The Broader Case for Indoor 5G

While it’s no surprise that high-volume, high-demand and high-stakes venues like airports are among the most enthusiastic adopters of indoor 5G, their deployments have made the case in favor of broader adoption across the transportation industry and even into commercial and enterprise environments as well. After all, no market is immune to the increasing expectation of total connectivity from customers, and similarly, no market can afford to ignore the operational efficiencies made possible by secure, ubiquitous indoor 5G coverage.

Indoor 5G has lived up to its promise as the flexible, high-performance connectivity solution of the future in the most demanding of crucibles—the international airport—proving it’s ready to transform experiences and business models across the entire spectrum.

About the Author

Kevin Swank | NICS Product Marketing Director

Kevin Swank is a veteran of the cellular wireless industry – having worked in everything from 2G to 5G.  He started his career as a software engineer and moved into leadership positions in product management and product marketing. Having worked for NEC, Nortel Networks, InnerWireless, and Black Box, Kevin is currently responsible for product marketing direction for Intelligent Cellular Networks at CommScope.

When he's not working on product differentiation or diving into customer stories, you'll find Kevin teaching his love for the ocean to new scuba divers or enjoying life with his family and his two corgis.